Before I watched King Kong I was not familiar with stop-motion animation or with its creator, Willis O’Brien, nor with the man who was most influenced by Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen. However, after watching King Kong, despite initially being unimpressed, the more I learned about the process of making stop motion animation the less cheesy the film seemed and the more extraordinary. It looked incredible and creative and I was in awe of the pathos and feeling they could generate from a mere puppet and the way he interacted with the live characters. So as a natural next step from King Kong, I watched Mighty Joe Young, where Ray Harryhausen worked with Willis O’Brien on the stop motion animation. And then to The 7th Voyage of Sinabd, where Harryhausen not only created the monsters, but also produced the film.
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is a hodge-podge of story elements from Greek poetry (The Odyssey), One Thousand and One Nights, monster movies like King Kong and Godzilla and even, if I stretch a point, fairy tales.
Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) is taking his fiance, Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant), to his home in Baghdad, where their marriage will cement an alliance between Baghdad and her land in Persia. However, they make a pit stop at Colossa, where they encounter an angry cyclops and a magician named Sokurah (Torin Thatcher). They escape from the angry cyclops and bring along the magician, though he loses his magic lamp in the process.
He begs Sinbad to go back so he can recover the lamp, and even offers a large reward, but Sinbad refuses and returns to Baghdad to prepare for his wedding. The continued refusal of the Caliph of Baghdad to send Sokurah back to Colossa with a ship and crew pushes him to desperate measures. He shrinks the princess to roughly the size of Thumbalina and tells Sinbad that only at Colossa are there the necessary ingredients for him to make a potion to bring the princess back to original size.
They set out with a murderous crew (because criminals are the only ones brave enough to risk their lives, since they have nothing to lose) with Sinbad carrying his beloved in a small, cushioned box. He must face mutiny, more cyclops, Roc birds (whose egg shells they must steal a piece of for Sokurah’s potion), starvation, more treachery from the crew and Sokurah, a dragon, and a skeleton that comes to life and wields a sword.
The original story of Sinbad is first found in a later edition of the One Thousand and One Nights and is not considered part of the original collection of stories. There are seven voyages of Sinbad, many of which do not have much in common with the movie, though the Roc birds apparently show up in the 5th Voyage.
What the movie really made me think of was the Odyssey, which is cited as one possible influence on the original Sinbad stories. There are screaming demons that drive people mad and force them to dash their ships against the rocks. To prevent himself from going mad, Sinbad stuffs wax in his ears (think Sirens). The cyclops captures the crew and almost eats them and then gets blinded. And even, for good measure, there are bits of Aladdin (another story added later to the One Thousand and One Nights tales), with a genie in a lamp and Sokurah making a pretty convincing Jaffar-like figure. You could even see shades of Pinocchio, with the genie being only a child who just wants to be free and to be a boy and not a genie. Maybe I’m stretching for that one a bit.
And then there are the monsters. The cyclops, of course. There is also the unforgettable cobra lady, created when Sokurah transforms Parisa’s handmaiden into a part cobra, part lady who does a dance. The Roc birds. The sword-fighting skeleton Sinbad must battle (the skeleton was a big hit with audiences, which I can understand. How exciting is that? Long before Pirates of the Caribbean). But my personal favorite is the dragon who guards Sokurah’s castle.
One of the things that made King Kong so great was the poignancy of the monster himself. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad doesn’t have quite that level of emotional connection for the monsters. They are there mostly for the coolness factor – and they are cool. However, I like to think that a little of that King Kong pathos makes it into the dragon. He’s chained to the wall of the entrance and he looks so pathetic there, you can’t help but feel what a sad existence he must lead. And then, when he escapes and after he fights a cyclops (and wins!) he is pierced with several arrows and instead of just dropping dead, the movie actually pauses to watch him die in an extended scene.
Of course, the reason I was able to feel such a deep connection for a briefly appearing monster is that none of the actors command much sympathy. The acting can best be described as…well, just sort of there. Kerwin Mathews is suitably heroic, but not particularly expressive or interesting. Parisa is unrelentingly perky. Sokurah is not that expressive, either, though gets by with a general aura of menace. But one does not watch the movie for the acting.
It’s a fun film, an adventure/fantasy, and there are not enough of those around. It’s the kind of film I would have liked even more if I had first seen it as a child, but you don’t have to be a child to enjoy it. And the music is fantastic, scored by Bernard Herrmann. Next up, I think, will be Jason and the Argonauts. My understanding is that instead of one skeleton, there is an army of them, and that it contains yet another score by Bernard Herrmann. One can’t have too much of that!